The Iranian deal in Middle Eastern geopolitics

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In recent days, the U.S. Government reshuffled the Middle Eastern deck dramatically, signing a framework agreement with Iran, but also buttressing America's traditional regional allies — supporting the Saudi-led Arab force in Yemen, lifting arms delivery constraints on Egypt, launching air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Tikrit, Iraq after Iran's effort there failed, and summoning the Gulf Arab states to Camp David. If the U.S. plays its cards right, it can capitalize on these developments to stabilize the region and correct some of its earlier mistakes. But failure to do so will generate a downward spiral. The first step to success is understanding the underlying situation in the Middle East and then finding a way to place this agreement into that situation in a way that advances security.

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The nuclear agreement thus is but one part of the Middle East's political topography: A nation-state system with the loyalty of its own citizens at risk, millennial Islamic movements preaching the end to that system, and the possibility that the primary two such movements — Sunni Islamic ISIS and the Shiite Iranian Islamic Republic — will stumble into a regional sectarian conflict. As ISIS is so extreme that it can only be dealt with militarily, the real challenge for statecraft is dealing with Iran by resisting its hegemony and/or modifying its behavior.

To start with the nuclear framework agreement: Leave aside the tough negotiations ahead to finalize it and the ambiguities in competing Iranian and American descriptions of it. What is important is that this deal, if the final version looks at all like the White House factsheet, is the "least bad solution." Iran, despite current sanctions, has maintained its current nuclear program for years, and could continue. Tougher sanctions would require broad international support. That was doubtful before and with this deal is simply impossible. Military action against Iran would not amount to "war," despite the Obama administration's relentless admonishments, but would have to be repeated some years later, and would generate some sort of Iranian escalation. Finally, given the significant reduction in Iranian capabilities in the deal, and the international buy-in, Congress will be hard-pressed to scupper the agreement, but if it tried, it would throw America's international credibility — and containment of Iran — into a cocked hat.

Thus, stuck with the agreement, what are its core geostrategic elements? Forget all the numbers, apart from the one-year breakout timeline. Those elements are: Iran (1) maintains its status as a nuclear threshold state; (2) receives at some point almost total sanctions relief; and (3) ducks formal culpability for its violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) with its nuclear weapons efforts and secret nuclear sites by keeping all of its nuclear infrastructure, even if dramatically modified, and accepts only a vague requirement to clarify its nuclear weapons research — one it has evaded before. As such, it maintains not only its "face," which the administration claims was necessary for an agreement, but avoids having to decide, in former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's famous phrase, whether it is a country (thus responsible under international law) or a cause (answering some heavenly mandate).

In return, the international community receives (1) a shift from a few months to approximately one year in breakout time to a possible nuclear device, a significant plus; and (2) even more extensive and intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which purportedly will make any effort to breakout almost immediately public.

The two sides' "gets" are linked, and will drive regional relations for years. The administration would argue that not calling Iran to task for its NPT violations encourages its transformation into a normal country. Perhaps, but by not having to account for its flaunting of international norms, Iran as a "cause" is inevitably encouraged to use its nuclear threshold status in one or another way, up to breakout, to advance its regional hegemony, i.e., one experience violating agreements without accountability encourages a second. In turn, the international community will have both early warning of any such endeavor, and seemingly sufficient time —  a year — to respond.

This response, then, is the most important aspect of the entire deal.The deal does not work in geostrategic terms if it is not clear to all, including the Iranians, that the international community will act forcefully by all means necessary to block a nuclear device. Clearing this up must be job No. 1 for the administration, not only to ensure the agreement is adhered to, but to fend off the many in Congress opposed to the deal.

The administration, however, repeatedly hints that the nuclear agreement will encourage Iran to move toward "normal country" status. A metamorphosis of Iran toward normalcy cannot be ruled out. But apart from Germany and Japan after devastating defeats, such "flips" are rare, in the end not even secured with China. Thus the international community should continue containing, and if necessary, confronting Iran through our traditional regional alliances. The White House would likely respond that such a policy would undercut an Iranian transformation, despite numerous warnings — the latest from former Deputy CIA Director Mike Morrell in The Washington Post on April 5, that such transformation is far from likely.

Furthermore, if such an extraordinary societal, political — even religious — transformation could be derailed just by American pressure on Tehran to adhere to the agreement or accept compromises on conflicts far from Iran, then it s likely the transformation would not have sufficient roots to survive. Moreover, if the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and other forces opposed to Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani's reform agenda keep scoring victories across the Middle East unimpeded, their vision for Iran as a cause will be strengthened, not weakened.

The administration can thus best deal with options for Iran's development, including possible transformation into a normal country, by maintaining resolute resistance to Iran's behavior as a "cause." Such resistance begins with reinforcing the steps taken last week to deepen ties with America's Arab partners.

But the most important step to contain Iran, stabilize the region and win acceptance for the nuclear agreement is to threaten in advance use of force if Iran violates the agreement. The administration can argue that this is its announced policy, but the president's words here ring hollow, given his response to Syrian chemical weapons and his constant warnings against "war" with Iran. Congress should help by passing in advance an authorization for the use of military force against an Iran in violation, and the president should specify what red line, if crossed, would provoke a military response. Such steps could defuse American opposition to the agreement and deter regional allies from "going it alone."

The answer to the inevitable argument that such U.S. action would "undercut" the agreement or stymie Iran's transformation is obvious: The agreement might require us to pretend that Iran is a responsible international law-respecting country, but Iranian violation of its terms would prove conclusively that it is a cause unwilling to adhere to its agreements or cease undermining regional stability, and thus require the U.S. to take a different tack.

Ambassador Jeffrey is the Philip Solondz distinguished visiting fellow at the Washington Institute where he focuses on U.S. strategies to counter Iran's efforts to expand its influence in the broader Middle East. One of the nation's most respected diplomats, Ambassador Jeffrey has held a series of highly sensitive posts in Washington and abroad. In addition to his service in Ankara and Baghdad, he served as assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, with a special focus on Iran.

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